As a 6-year-old growing up in Pittsburgh, Aaron Toews remembers watching Penguin hockey star Paul Baxter warm up before a game. He leaned over to his parents and told them, "I want to do this."
Not long after that enlightening moment, the youngster hit the ice with skating lessons and a year later picked up a stick and began his hockey career. Today, at age 20, fans are now keeping an eye on Toews as he plays for Northeastern University in Boston, one of the most hockey-hungry areas in the nation.
Although the Huskies are only 2-10-1 so far this season, the freshman defenseman, who moved with his family to Los Altos nine years ago, is having a blast playing in front of 1,500-plus crowds and against such powerhouses as Boston College, Boston University and Harvard.
"They love hockey in Boston, it's a big-time sport. It's almost like high school football (in crowd enthusiasm)," said Toews, who's back home in Los Altos for the holidays. "There's a lot of fans, and they know everything about the team. Kids ask for autographs and the school band heckles you.
"It's a shocking experience, and it's a dream come true," he added.
Upon his arrival in the Bay Area as a kid, Toews joined up with the Santa Clara Youth Hockey Association's Blackhawks at Eastridge Mall in San Jose and later played with the NorCal Junior Sharks while he was attending St. Francis High. After three years at St. Francis, Toews began pursuing his hockey dream at Shattuck-St. Mary's prep school in Minnesota and then hooked up with Northeastern this year.
In his inaugural season in the college ranks, Toews has six assists and one goal as a member of the Huskies' No. 1 defensive line.
And he's also getting the chance to play under last year's NCAA coach of the year, Bruce Crowder.
While Toews said that the competition, training and hockey writers can be brutal at times, he notes that Crowder is a "player's coach," one who mentally prepares them for games and activities off the ice.
"He has three rules: be a gentleman, don't break the law and get your schoolwork done," said Toews, noting that Crowder is also concerned with the Huskies' performance in the Hockey East league this season. "He said he's not afraid to bring in 15 freshmen if that's what we need to start winning. That put a kick in some of the guys."
And Toews is prepared to stick with the sport he recalls labeling as the "coolest thing in the world" while checking out Pittsburgh's Baxter all those years ago. He even opted to go against the grain by passing up on football, the sport his dad Loren played in the 1970s and '80s for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"He's shown that it is possible to go on and play at the college level," said Aaron's mom, Val. "It's a dead-end road in California; it's hard to keep playing after you're 13 years old. But there is a future in hockey for California boys."